Smartphones are catching up with $2,000 cameras in terms of video recording, and here's the proof


For years now, smartphones have been pummeling the sales of point-and-shoot cameras, and for good reason. As they say, the best camera often is the one you have on you, ready to snap a picture. And so, as smartphone cameras continued to be relentlessly improved, so did the appeal of a dedicated camera kept closing in on zero. But a full-fledged mirrorless camera? That's another topic — at least according to many.

Right off the bat, we'll admit that by no means will a top-of-the-line smartphone measure up against a quality camera, specifically if used by a professional. And yet, phone cameras have been getting closer and closer, up to a point where a mirrorless camera or a DSLR used in Auto is not significantly better in terms of the results rolling into its internal storage. In fact, if we focus on just video recording, it's fair to say that smartphones are very much catching up — the very best already outshine cheaper dedicated cameras. For today's comparison, we didn't pick just any camera, however. We'll be comparing three Android heavyweights — the Samsung Galaxy S6, the Google Nexus 6, and the Sony Xperia Z3 — against Panasonic's excellent Lumix GH4. 


Released in 2014, the GH4 is an upper mid-range mirrorless camera, and among the very first to offer 4K UHD video recording in what is still a consumer class price range. At launch, the body of the GH4 cost $1,500, and the lens we're using with it costs $400 today (Lumix G Vario HD 14-140 mm). Even without it, the GH4 is tens of times bulkier, not to mention much heavier at 19.75 oz (560 g). All this space allows for some pretty sophisticated optics to be included, along with a 224.9 sq. mm image sensor. Compared with the units available on the Galaxy S6 (~19.8 sq. mm), Nexus 6 (~16.4 sq. mm), and Xperia Z3 (~28.5 sq. mm), that's quite the significant advantage on paper. But it doesn't translate into quite as compelling a lead in terms of video recording, as we're about to showcase.

Let there be light!


For the purposes of this comparison, we shot some test footage with all four devices in 4K UHD resolution (3840 x 2160), and then extracted snapshots from the raw files to create crops. We used Lancsoz resampling for all re-sizing, and saved the files in a 100% JPEG. The images below have been sized to fit our site's layout, but you can check out the original snapshots, along with the raw footage they were extracted from, in the slideshow below each scene.

Scene 1


This shot was taken on a sunny day, with nearly no clouds in sight to block the sun's rays. This particular composition is well-suited to draw conclusions on the level of details offered by each device, dynamic range, and white balance. Overall, the GH4 manages to resolve a rather insignificant amount of details more than the rest, but the sky is visibly grey when it should be a very light blue. It is possible that this is owed due to the fact that the framing is a bit different with the GH4, and less of the sky is visible, confusing the camera's automatic algorithms. The Xperia Z3 fails to impress due to that nasty, purplish overcast, while the Nexus 6 is almost there, but offers colors that are a bit too saturated (notice the red in the car). As we expected, the Galaxy S6 delivered a very natural shot full of details, though Samsung's flagship, like the other smartphones on the list, chose to expose the image a notch less compared to the GH4.



Scene 2


Our second scene is quite dynamic, and thus challenging, as you're about to see. This actually turned out to be the one composition that the Lumix GH4's algorithms took an entirely different approach compared to the smartphone camp's. Indeed, the GH4 obviously put priority on not allowing any part of the scene to be overexposed, producing very dark footage in the process. In comparison, all three phone cameras had no such qualms, and allowed the bright spot at top middle portion of the scene to burn, while keeping the rest of the scene visible. While the Xperia Z3 again had troubles with white balance, the Nexus 6 and Galaxy S6 performed excellently, delivering true-to-life colors and a truckload of fine detail that simply isn't visible in the GH4's snapshot.



Scene 3


Our third scene turned out to be quite alike to our first, though quite a bit more dynamic. Thankfully for camp Panasonic, however, the Lumix GH4 didn't have troubles with setting a proper white balance this time around, and resolved a very realistic image. Here, too, the smartphone group went with an exposure level a tad lower than the GH4's, and in result delivered a slightly darker than optimal image (mind, the GH4 went a bit too far as well, but in the other direction). In conclusion, it's probably fair to call this a tie — both categories of devices delivered comparable footage, save for the Xperia Z3, which went down the purple path once again.



Scene 4


Our last daylight composition was included to mostly showcase one very clear distinction in the way footage is compressed — smartphones at large, especially the Galaxy S6, sharpen images significantly, while the GH4 goes for a softer look. This is plainly visible with the curb, and we were able to draw out the exact same look out of the camera's clip by just applying some sharpening in Photoshop or by using a different internal profile

Moving on, with the exception of the Xperia Z3 (which rendered the composition with a dreadful purple tinge), and the Nexus 6 (overly saturated hues), the Galaxy S6 and Lumix GH4 delivered very comparable results, though the latter did do better overall thanks to the slightly higher exposure it chose, which ended up revealing more details in darker portions of the image.




Lights out 


Next up, it was time to really strain the comparatively tiny sensors on our three contestants from the smartphone family, and give the Lumix GH4 its best chance to defend its much higher asking price in terms of video, by taking some test footage in medium and very low light.

Scene 5


First, we started out with a video clip shot in medium light inside our photo studio. As the results below show, the GH4 had the best showing, but not by much, closely followed by the Galaxy S6 and even the Xperia Z3, which finally managed a proper white balance. Still, in terms of the detail resolved, Sony's smartphone fell behind, delivering visibly soft footage. The Nexus 6 pretty much flopped.

If anything, it was the Galaxy S6 again that managed to give the GH4 a run for its money, even though it failed to match the faithfulness of the scene as well as Panasonic's camera (notice the color of the wall). Still, all things considered, that was a pretty good showing for a sensor more than ten times smaller than its opponent. 



Scene 6


Medium light, challenging though it may be, is nothing compared to scenarios where smartphone cameras have to perform in very poorly lit environments. But the results, despite our expectations, showed that the GH4 nevertheless didn't completely massacre its tiny competitors.

Once again, only one of our trio of smartphones managed to launch a challenge, and that was the Galaxy S6. We won't beat around the bush, though — it still performed worse than the GH4, whose much larger camera sensor had no trouble letting enough light in to render a realistically bright image. That said, the GH4 once again went a bit too far, and actually overexposed the composition — the real thing was actually noticeably darker. Still, fair is fair, and we have to give it to Panasonic for the level of detail it managed to preserve — there was none of the mushiness of the shot from the S6.




Fluid, too?


Before we were ready to sum up our findings, we thought it's a good idea to take some footage of stuff that actually moves just so we can compare the fluidity of the recorded clips in terms of panning and moving around. It's worth pointing out that all four of our contestants shoot 4K UHD at 30 frames per second (FPS), though the Lumix GH4 can also do "cinematic" 4K UHD @ 24 FPS. This particular shooting mode is mostly seen being used in theaters, with the vast majority of movies nowadays released in 24 FPS (though HFR (48FPS) is trending up with the likes of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies).

This is also where we note that all devices on our list save for the Xperia Z3 offer optical image stabilization, while Sony's handset relies on a rather decent software implementation. Right off the bat, however, it was obvious that its footage was on the shakier side, whilst the Nexus 6 offered the smoothest recording of the phone group, surpassed only by the Lumix GH4. What advantage the Nexus 6 had on the Galaxy S6 in terms of stabilization, however, it more than squanders with its insecure, jumpy auto focus. So a win for the Lumix GH4, but smartphones again prove they're just not that far behind, especially if you consider that one of them is just 0.27 inches-thick (6.8 mm) and weighs over four times less than Panasonic's mirrorrless camera (body only!).


Conclusion


So what are we to make of all this? After all, save for Scene 2, the Panasonic Lumix GH4 did prove a teeny bit better at video capture when light is abundant, and generally superior in low light. A professional would coax even better performance out of it, and it's unlikely that a compact smartphone will ever prove as versatile and capable as a mirrorless camera or a DSLR in the hands of a videographer. True that may be, but you have to consider a number of irrefutable facts that clearly showcase that smartphones, indeed, are catching up.

For starters, and this is the most important consideration, the camera gear we used here is no joke, and costs almost $2,000 to get your hands on today. That's three times more than you'd pay for, say, a Galaxy S6, which also doubles up as a phone, multimedia & entertainment hub, browser, and so much more. Secondly, while all three phones will fit in your pocket — yes, even the Nexus 6 — lugging around the GH4 is actually tiresome! And in that context, the performance of our trio of smartphones is actually admirable — they competed with optics and image sensors only a fraction of the size of those available with the GH4. Sure, the latter can do optical zoom, but that was still a pretty convincing performance, and if we picked a more affordable camera, the smartphones likely would have compared even better.

Of course, this is the part where we mention that not all smartphones were made equal, and it was the S6 that offered our mirrorless camera a run for its money. The Nexus 6 did pretty well, too, but poorly lit environments proved too challenging for its tiny sensor (the smallest of the bunch), while the Xperia Z3 disappointed with its consistent purple fringe. 

Smartphone cameras are catching up with expensive, dedicated cameras in terms of video recording, and this was our proof. Discuss!

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54 Comments

1. hafini_27

Posts: 949; Member since: Oct 31, 2013

Seriously, galaxy S6 camera is just awesome.

31. medicci37

Posts: 1361; Member since: Nov 19, 2011

I've noticed that for some reason low light are oversaturated at 16 mp but if I drop it down to 8 mp pics look much better

38. sgtdisturbed47

Posts: 966; Member since: Feb 02, 2012

As a point-and-shoot it does extremely well for having such a small sensor. This comparison is silly. People don't use a DSLR in Auto. Ever. The ones that do will end up dumping their "Soccer Mom" budget DSLR with coke-bottle slow kit lens in favor of a smartphone camera. Those that use a DSLR regularly will learn the basics of photography, which will yield far better results than Auto. If you want to compare real results, hand that DSLR to someone that knows what they're doing. They'll shoot RAW and process the image annually in their "digital darkroom", instead of using Auto. The result will exceed any smartphone camera capability.

2. pmsap

Posts: 105; Member since: May 26, 2015

Just missing the "true" slowmotion of 480fps with good quality (HD at least). Maybe with the multi-camera smartphone to be introduced in 2016/2017 we will see a true improvement.

3. MahmoudHamsharii

Posts: 70; Member since: Aug 28, 2013

The galaxy S6 tends to have over contrast images in daylight gives the image more beauty even if it wasn't natural, the Z3 gives the nearest image to the human eye view.

11. Jason2k13

Posts: 1461; Member since: Mar 28, 2013

your eyes see's purple skies and purple tinge on objects?

15. RajRicardo

Posts: 493; Member since: Feb 28, 2014

I dont have any purple tinge on my Z3. Maybe the authors device has a defective camera. Its a common defect in Xperia line devices.

16. Jason2k13

Posts: 1461; Member since: Mar 28, 2013

So your saying other professional reviewers have defective Z3 to?

19. buccob

Posts: 2968; Member since: Jun 19, 2012

You call PA "professional reviewers"??? what a joke.

22. Jason2k13

Posts: 1461; Member since: Mar 28, 2013

You must be a joke to for coming here since 2012 with over 2000 post?

28. buccob

Posts: 2968; Member since: Jun 19, 2012

I love this website and the frequency of its news... I am dissatisfied with the objectiveness, professionalism and quality of reviews Whats the joke about that? PA is just a bunch of folks and kids with sponsorship to buy new phones and toys and play with it just like any tech lover would do, and some authors are eloquent enough to make compelling articles, while others rely on click-bait.... and almost no one is truly objective when reviewing a smartphone, so not many I would call professional reviewers.

30. Jason2k13

Posts: 1461; Member since: Mar 28, 2013

Your still making a joke about yourself, the news is written by PA reviewers who you call a 'joke' yet your still here reading all their news and commenting on them and giving them more views and likes. Do you go to a McDonald's restaurant, tell the workers their burgers suck but still you come there everyday to eat their food? ...it also sounds like if theirs an article that you disagree on, you call the Arthur a 'joke'.

40. RajRicardo

Posts: 493; Member since: Feb 28, 2014

Its not the article people are disagreeing on. Are you saying PA reviewers ALWAYS get perfect devices??? Do you even own a Z3? I own one and I said I DONT HAVE ANY PURPLE TINT ISSUE WHILE FILMING VIDEOS EVEN IN 4K. And I also said "MAYBE" the authors camera is defective. I'm not saying it defintely is defective. READ PEOPLE READ!!!

44. ninja_master

Posts: 306; Member since: Feb 27, 2015

Dont bother replying to that sony hater

24. Hallyu

Posts: 790; Member since: Jul 21, 2015

Z3 produces sub-par detail and distortion in low light condition. Since we have our dearest Sony fanboys who station here and are willing to defend it at any cost, and refuse to point out its mistakes, I'm not surprised at all that Sony keep going down. Yes, not even in the top 10 largest phone makers.

32. anleoflippy

Posts: 596; Member since: Jan 03, 2013

I see you are the new papasmurf? Got to right that down.

41. RajRicardo

Posts: 493; Member since: Feb 28, 2014

We are not defending anything. Z3 has awful camera 'software'. But don't comment on the hardware itself as the precious S6 also employs a sony made sensor.

4. Hallyu

Posts: 790; Member since: Jul 21, 2015

The Galaxy S6 camera just blow its competitors away. Samsung = King

10. kabiluddin

Posts: 275; Member since: Feb 28, 2015

Hallyu = SuperNova/SuperKorea/AppleCultist/All the patriot accounts.

5. hound.master

Posts: 1044; Member since: Feb 27, 2015

Well these phones are no match for this camera remember that phones have limited capabilities there's a reason why it costs 2000$ cause its for pros of course phones pics may look better due to software optimization but lets recall that it's no big deal for pro cameras since they shot in raw and optimizations can be done later this camera in a hands of a pro shots better each and everytime.

8. EcoCare

Posts: 444; Member since: Jul 30, 2014

Yeah but the thing is.... not all people are (and want to be) pros.

45. elitewolverine

Posts: 5192; Member since: Oct 28, 2013

If your spending 2k on the camera, what the hell are you doing if not trying to be even a semi-pro? I spent 400 on a deal for our t5i DSLR and I will in no way ever think the s6 will ever outdo its clarity and ability, because it cant. The lens' alone are enough to make any camera, even my loved 1020 just a cameraphone. If all you are doing is keeping it at 35mm and snapping in auto, then you are wasting a camera of 2k proportions, and no review that is ever reputable will ever think you can replace it. If we really want to get to the king of camera's take out the 1020/808 give it to a pro and let him shoot his own wedding photos with it...oh wait that has been done and it looked amazing. I still wouldn't replace the DSLR for that type of photography. And yes details matter. Not 16MP camera can makeup the details that a focused 41MP sensor will gather. There is a clear difference when using the raw 39MB file and a 16MB file. There is even a difference between the 930/1520 (which is on par with the s6), when you zoom in etc.

47. Plutonium239

Posts: 1212; Member since: Mar 17, 2015

I have seen mods done to the Lumia 1020 camera grip so that lenses will screw onto it. The Lumia 1020, supplemented by an amazing lens gets extremely close to DSLRs and far better than any other phone. If you don't like the color saturation, make sure you set it to raw so you can process the image yourself(although personally, I like the way it makes the colors pop, it does over do it just slightly, and most of my pictures look better than the actual scene, at least in my opinion).

50. elitewolverine

Posts: 5192; Member since: Oct 28, 2013

Indeed, it is my favorite shooter, I have seen them do the 1520 one as well for attachable lens. Currently using the 1520 as my daily driver. I want to purchase the 1020 adapter just haven't gotten around to it. Currently want to build a telescope for it instead. Its just amazing what the Raw 39MP file pulls in compared to other camera's. With the s6 software doing a great job, it still cant match imo the 1020s details, especially when zoomed in on the full raw and then processed afterwards.

51. Plutonium239

Posts: 1212; Member since: Mar 17, 2015

I know exactly what you are saying, many people blindly go based on the ratings of websites. Put a high res picture from a Lumia 1020 and an S6 on a 4k display(or better) and the picture of the 1020 will blow the S6 out of the water in terms of details captured. If you try to display the high res picture on anything below a 4k display, details will appear blurry.

26. ph00ny

Posts: 2028; Member since: May 26, 2011

Biggest part of the camera equation for dslr is the lens. Not sure about other brands but when i carried around canon dslr, my glasses were worth more than the body and it took some spectacular shots. All the adjustments availble in dslr is on a whole different level and the result is hugely user dependant

6. ciprian_xro

Posts: 4; Member since: Mar 30, 2015

try lumia 1020 and see the true snapshot!!!

12. Jason2k13

Posts: 1461; Member since: Mar 28, 2013

The lumia 1020 is probably worst than the Sony Z3 in terms of video recording.

17. razraptre

Posts: 168; Member since: Oct 21, 2014

Manual focus during video.

37. Plutonium239

Posts: 1212; Member since: Mar 17, 2015

The Lumia 1020 is fine during video recording, just need a tripod and the camera-grip case. The issue with taking video with my 1020 is that if I move too much, it can lose focus on something far away that I am trying to record, such as fireworks. I recorded fireworks on the 4th on a boat with my 1020, it did an excellent job, and the video turned out better than my friend's s6 did. However, it did lose focus throughout the video as the boat was not exactly stable nor was holding it in my hand. The ois could be better.

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